Words By: Chris Etchingham
For many Parisians who wish to spend their summer holidays in the south west of France towards the Bordeaux region and the Atlantic coast, they travel along the A10 autoroute taking in the architectural delights of Poitiers, Orleans and many other beautiful wonders of the French countryside. Before all this splendour, however, they would also pass the very non descript suburb of Les Ulis on the edge of the French capital which is nothing but a footnote on the map. Should one take a cursory glance out of the window, though, you could possibly see the Stade Jean-Marc Salinier where CO Les Ulis ply their trade in the seventh tier of the French league system. The tiny club has a unique place within French football as it played a significant part in its past and also its future too, as this is the place where Thierry Henry, Patrice Evra and Anthony Martial grew up and took their first tentative steps in professional football.
The town itself is a series of tower blocks and projects built in the 1970s to house Paris’ ever increasing demand for social housing for its growing migrant population (it was estimated that when Henry was growing up in the area 40% of the local population was of an ethnic make up). The area too has attracted large multi-national investment; both Hewlett-Packard and Apple have their French headquarters in the area.
Henry, born to a father from Guadeloupe and a mother from Martinique, once described the rather grim environment of Les Ulis where he grew up; “all I saw was cement…tall buildings, long buildings, walls where we played football against”. The former Rangers, Southend United and Ipswich Town player Bilel Mohsni (himself born in Paris of Tunisian extraction) has gone one step further and declared that “you had two options when I was growing up, you could either be a gangster or you could play football”. Les Ulis really was a place where you grew up fast. However, even here there were limits. Mohsni said that his father refused to let his son attend Paris Saint Germain matches for a long period of time owing to crowd violence.
Living in Les Ulis also brought about a sense of communal togetherness which showed itself on the football pitch too. Mahamadou Niakate, a coach at CO Les Ulis who first saw Martial play when he was just six years old (“immediately we saw that he had qualities above those of others”) believes that football is an integral part of Les Ulis social culture. “We are a small town, full of football pitches everywhere…the football club is 500 metres from everyone”. Niakate also feels that there is a family feel to CO Les Ulis who, with a hard work ethic from its coaches, help bring on players with the qualities of Henry, Martial and Evra. This continues out of football too and there is an emphasis upon academic education drilled into the players by the likes of Niakate but also from players’ families too – Henry’s mother moved house so he could attend the highly regarded Alexander Fleming College where he was eventually selected for the French footballing academy at Clairefontaine.
Les Ulis also leaves an impression on those who succeed and leave the club; they continue to keep ties with the club and local area too. Henry’s brother remained in the town for some time after Thierry made his move to Arsenal, he also returned to Les Ulis following France’s 1998 World Cup win and 2000 people came to see their hero return. Amongst them were his childhood friends such as Mickael Lamin who described the young Henry as “a likeable guy, he was just one of us, one of the kids”. Henry’s mother has, though, left the area and his father (himself a good footballer who always ensured he watched his sons play) returned to Guadeloupe, though a large and hugely proud ex-pat population still live in the town.
Evra (himself born in Dakar, Senegal and one of twenty-five siblings) remembered his Les Ulis roots too when as a Manchester United player he looked out for Martial when the latter had a trial for Manchester City aged just 12. Evra also spent time persuading Martial that a move to Manchester United was in his best interests “Patrice Evra told me it was a ‘club of champions’, a club that above all else wants to win, and certainly since I arrived here I’ve felt that for myself too”.
Martial has also indirectly left a huge financial legacy for CO Les Ulis. The club received no money at all when Henry left due to his young age and just 38,000 Euros when Evra did. However, under FIFA rules it is estimated that CO Les Ulis will receive a windfall of approximately £400,000 which is enough to meet their running costs for the next five years. This though, according to Niakate is not the most important aspect of the Martial transfer; “our main satisfaction is that someone from Les Ulis is able to join such as prestigious club as Manchester United”.
Henry, Martial and Evra have left three signed shirts which hang in the corridors of CO Les Ulis. With such a pedigree of players already produced, the financial injection Martial’s transfer to Manchester United brought to the club as well as dozens of young children signing for the club since he made the move, you wouldn’t bet against a fourth shirt hanging alongside the others in the not too distant future.